7 tips for managing conflict in a multicultural workplace

How to resolve conflict at work

It’s fair to assume that nobody likes living in a state of conflict in the workplace. Conflict is wearing and demoralizing. But how to manage it – and how to perceive it – depends on the culture of the individuals concerned. Developing cultural awareness could help reduce conflict in multicultural teams.

Individualists and low-context communicators – in other words, people from the United States, Australia, the Netherlands, the UK, Germany and Scandinavia – accept that conflict is a part of life. Not necessarily a welcome one, but something that can be handled. Conversely, people from high-context, collectivist countries and regions like China, Japan, Arab nations, Greece, Latin America and India, have a strong sense of ‘face’. Emphasis is placed on harmony, and getting along, and to be in conflict with someone is a sign of social failure. Consequently, conflict is avoided and people may let resentment simmer, or take a passive-aggressive approach to their job and their team.

Either way, conflict that doesn’t evaporate on its own needs to be addressed. Here are some pointers on dealing with disagreements and disputes in a multicultural team.

1. Recognize when something is wrong

Not all cultures wear their hearts on their sleeves and often, it is up to a team leader to spot when something is wrong, as team members will keep problems to themselves. Individuals may blame others, or the system, for their mistakes. A team with a foreign manager may adopt passive aggressive behavior, like speaking to one another in their own language or dialect in front of that manager. A team member who continually greets a manager or colleagues with silence is probably harboring a grievance.

2. Listen

Don’t just listen to the words people are saying; people from some cultures, like Japan or China, may struggle to articulate their feelings, as discussing one’s feelings in public is not done. Look for non-verbal clues that an individual is unhappy: body language like fidgeting, slumped posture, continually crossed arms and lack of eye contact.

3. Look beyond

Don’t see everything through the lens of your own culture – and bear in mind that the people who are involved in the conflict may be operating not just from the point of their own culture, but a corporate culture, or a culture common to their profession. Try to understand what their expectations are, and what they see as normal behavior.

4. Don’t assume

The conflict may not be the result of cultural difference; it could be the result of a clash between genders, or generations. Conflicts like these may occur in countries where, for example, seniority is valued, like Asian nations, or parts of Africa, and a younger manager is brought in to to manage an older team. Or in traditionally more male-orientated societies, like Muslim cultures, where perhaps female managers are a relatively new phenomenon, and may struggle to earn the respect of a male team. Conflict within what an ex-pat manager sees as one single cultural group could be tribal, or political, or related to social class, or caste.

5. Empathize

Try to imagine, in the context of their culture, how each individual feels and try to encourage them to do the same.  For example, if team member A berates colleague B for missing a deadline and the two get into an argument, try to get the individuals to look a little deeper. Did B miss the deadline because of some external factor? Or because they are a perfectionist, or the deadline was unrealistic? Did A get annoyed because missing the deadline had knock-on implications for them? Or because they thought B hadn’t taken it seriously enough and took that personally? Think of culture as an iceberg: 90% of an individual’s conditioning and culture is hidden below the surface.

6. Know when to step in

In some cultures, individuals expect to be able to solve most conflicts by themselves. In Israel, for example, or the United States, or Germany, or Scandinavian countries, people are conditioned to speak up for themselves, to problem-solve and to say what they’re thinking. In cultures like South Korea, the hierarchy will usually resolve a conflict; the structure is so entrenched that the senior person in a dispute will pull rank. In cultures where harmony is the main goal, like India, or China, or Kenya, situations can simmer as workers try to maintain the status quo while still harboring resentment about whatever the conflict is.

7. Mediate

If individuals clearly can’t solve a problem themselves, the most common approach, however informal, is to introduce a third party to mediate. But even this role varies between cultures. Individualist cultures welcome an independent mediator – an HR person, or a qualified mediator, who will simply listen while the individuals talk through the situation. Collectivist cultures prefer a mediator who is known to both parties, and respected, so perhaps a senior manager, or a tribal elder, or religious leader, and that individual is expected to guide the mediation and help the individuals come up with a solution.

To find out how cross cultural training can support your organisation click here.

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About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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